Pros: Amazing architecture, wonderful food, low prices.
Cons: Smoke, having a rough time in some areas adapting to newfound freedoms.
I have swapped this review with my review of the KGB museum - moving the latter to the Writer's corner until I figure out how to write more than one review under the Vilnius topic. Please hang with me as I figure out this E-pinions thing!
This is a new type of review for me. I have written or am writing about numerous sites, hotels, etc. in the vicinity of Vilnius, Lithuania, and will include links as I add them to Epinions.
OVERVIEW OF LITHUANIA AND VILNIUS
Lithuania is one of the three Baltic states ? Latvia and Estonia being the two other sisters. Declaring her independence from the Former Soviet Union (FSU) in 1991, Lithuania is in the midst of transition from communism/Marxism to capitalism, a task she has met with differing levels of success. Vilnius is the capital city, far inland from the Baltic sea. Vilnius was once known as the Jerusalem of Europe and home to a large Jewish population (before the wholesale slaughter of more than 200,000 during the Nazi occupation) and still has a rich Jewish culture extant in the small surviving remnant. The country has survived numerous invasions - Poland in the 1920's, USSR in 1939 (after the infamous treaty with Germany) followed quickly by the Nazis, and the USSR again in 1944. Lithuania was invited in 2002 to become a member of NATO.
Vilnius is host to wonderfully diverse architecture, each century since the 13th being evident in separate contributions. The upper and lower Gedimas Castle sections were built in the 13th century and "re-accomplished" in the 14th and 18th century, models of which are on display in the Western tower, as are many examples of armor and armament. Perhaps the most diverse and beautiful examples of architecture are found among the 50 or so cathedrals ranging in design from 14th/15th century Gothic to 17th/18th century Baroque to the distinctive Russian Orthodox designs. Many are open to visitors, and the magnificent paintings, ornate wood, metal and stonework, and historical readings (many copied in English) are well worth the days of touring they require. The surviving parts of the Jewish neighborhoods, including the Temple provide yet another contrast. More recent 19th and early 20th century architecture examples are found at the outskirts of old town, which rapidly gives way to the grey and lifeless buildings that remind you of the 40 years of Soviet occupation. If you want the complete FSU experience, you can go up the road a bit to the Chernobyl-design nuke reactor (I passed, thankyou very much).
Lithuania is quite homogenous - I believe that the population is nearly 90% ethnic Lithuanian, if not more. The language is Lithuanian. Hotel, airport, and other tourist staff speak English, but not many other people. Many speak Russian, but I have heard it is somewhat rude to do so (I don't speak either Lithuanian or Russian, but have been privileged to have translators assigned to me most of the time, and learning a bit of 'survival' Lithuanian along with smiles and gestures helped during other times). The people in general were polite and generous. Crime is on the rise, and in general many people are distrustful of strangers, but a polite smile and warm demeanor goes a long way to dispel such fears. Some fear of government and authority remains from the FSU days. The society is patriarchal and some women compatriots of mine felt (quite rightly, I believe) that Lithuanian men were uncomfortable working with them, especially if they were in leadership roles.
The Vilnius airport is about 30 minutes by car from downtown and most hotels. It hosts regular service by multiple airlines, including Polish Ailines, Lufthansa, Aeroflot, Lithuanian Airlines, and others. Hertz, Avis and Europcar are among the major rental car companies. Some offer English-speaking chauffeur service, a wonderful (and in Vilnius, reasonable) idea if you do not speak Lithuanian. Train and bus terminals are in the city, but I did not use either. Taxi service has been reported by others I've traveled with to be reasonable, but I prefer to walk to most locations in town and have had the luxury of a car and driver for more distant locations. The buses are extremely inexpensive, but packed.
SELECTED PLACES OF INTEREST
Trakai: 30 minutes away lies the castle of Trakai. Sitting upon a beautiful lake, the 14th century castle has been fully restored and now houses a large museum. If you go, you HAVE to eat at Apvalaus Stalo Klubas ("The Round Table Club"), especially if you are with your significant other. It is simply the most romantic and beautiful location to eat with some of the best food in the region with a spectacular view of the castle. You can read more about it in my Trakai review.
Museum of Genocide: Not a light afternoon experience. The basement of the former KGB office and residential building was a prison, torture, and execution facility. It has since been transformed into a haunting museum. The guided tour is a must, and a former inmate is often available to answer questions.
Jewish Quarter - Review in progress: This is a misleading title, as more than a half-century of persecution has scattered the key sites of Jewish culture throughout the city. Three cruicial places to visit are the Gaon Museum, the Museum of Holocaust (or "Green House") and Paneriai ? the site where about 100,000 jews were massacred.
Churches and Cathedrals - Review in progress: The highlight of Vilnius architecture is found in the numerous churches and cathedrals. This review has a list of some of the most prominent ones along with their key distinctions.
Gediminas Castle - Review in progress: The focal point of old town Vilnius. This castle sits atop a tall hill in the center of the town. The lower castle, behind the Cathedral, is an active archaeological dig and museum, while a cobblestone walk leads to the summit and the higher castle, also a museum, with a sweeping view of the city and surrounding countryside.
Other Things to Do: This includes the excellent operatic, ballet, and theatrical shows at bargain prices. The central opera house offers traveling and local productions. Just walking around is great as well.
WHERE TO STAY
Numerous hotels exist in the city and nearby. I have written, or am in the process of writing, opinions on the following hotels, all of which I can recommend without reservation. Fitness centers, if they have them, are tiny and inadequate (except Le Meridien). There are a few gyms in town, and the river offers a good place to run along.
Radisson SAS Astorija Vilnius: Stay where visiting heads of state stay (including our own President GW Bush). Right next to the town hall in the entrance to Old Town and its restaurants and markets. A beautiful building with well-appointed rooms.
Holiday Inn Vilnius: The most modern hotel in Vilnius, located just across the "Green Bridge" from downtown. A bit more of a walk from the sights, but an incredible staff and reasonable prices make it a good choice.
Scandic Hotel Neringa: Smack in the middle of the Gedimino shopping strip. Trendy and well appointed rooms. Even has a library to rest in.
Le Meridien Villon: Typical Le Meridien opulence. Quite a drive (15-30 minutes depending on conditions) from downtown. Has the best spa/fitness facilities in the area.
WHERE TO EAT
Now we're onto my favorite subject. No separate reviews, except for the Apvalaus Stalo Klubas I mentioned above in Trakai. All of these are easy to find, except Markus, which will take a map highlighted by your hotel concierge.
La Provence: You guessed it, this is French food. The staff speaks French as well as Lithuanian. One of the waiters speaks a bit of English. Between my lousy French and his lousy English, we got along great. Incredible (and beautiful) food in a very cozy atmosphere - a place to bring the sweetie. If you do, ask to sit in the basement with its domed brick ceilings and wine-cellar decor. Appetizer, entree, dessert, and 2 glasses of wine = ~$25.
San Marco: Although this restaurant has an Italian flare (actually, a Lithuanian-Italian-French flare - interesting), the atmosphere is straight out of Vienna. Inside an old castle, the interior is richly appointed in dark wood offset by ornate wallpaper, chandeliers, and indirect lighting. Expect to spend 2 hours, but only about $20, for a tastefully presented and tasting meal with exquisite service. It's worth the wait.
Markus Ir Ko: Steaks - some of the best I've had in my life. Live piano music on weekend nights. Dark atmosphere with different intimate seating locations as well as some available group seating make it a great place for meetings of 2 to 20. My most expensive meal ever in Lithuania was here on a Friday night - about $30 for 2 glasses of red wine (my standard), a huge caviar appetizer, salad, mushrooms, a large steak, dessert and coffee.
Cili Pizza: The closest to fast food I've allowed myself to approach. The imaginative brick oven pizzas and quick service make this chain a great stop for a quick lunch.
Da Antonio I and II: Two locations in Vilnius offer relatively authentic Italian food, including brick oven pizzas and various pasta and salad offerings. Less formal than other restaurants mentioned here, but great for lunch or a dinner with friends.
WHAT TO BUY
If you've read earlier reviews of mine, you know that I believe one of the best places to experience a culture is in its markets. Vilnius is no exception. The market runs every day in Old Town, but is larger on weekends. In addition to standard FSU curiosities such as uniform pieces and rubles, handcrafts are in great supply. Linen is one of the wonderful products, both in the markets and in stores throughout the town. Another famous product is amber. If you're going to buy amber with insects inside (a la Jurassic Park) expect to pay a bit more than the entirely reasonable jewelry prices, and plan on going to a reputable store. Matrushka (stacking) dolls from Russia are good buys as well as birchwood and leather goods. Some of the best sights in the market are the rows of paintings and drawings by local artisans.
BEFORE YOU GO
Visas/Passports: Visas are not required for short-term visits by US passport holders. Visitors from other countries should check with their consulate in Vilnius or with the Lithuanian embassy in their home country.
Research: In addition to checking out www.state.gov for the latest travel advisories, check out the superb website put out by the Lithuanian Tourist Bureau, www.tourism.lt .
Money: Depending how extravagant you like to live, you can live very comfortably within $40/day. You can save a lot of money by only hiring a car for trips to/from the airport and for any day trips outside the city. The rest of the time, you'll do better on foot (besides, you?ll want to walk off the great food!). Currency is the Lita, once fixed to the dollar (4 Lt = US$1) but now a free-trading currency. Usually fluctuates around 3.5-4.0 Lt to the US$.
Travel Planners: I highly recommend the Lonely Planet travel guide to the Baltic states. At the airport, or any local bookstore, you should also pick up the "Vilnius In Your Pocket" guide for current offerings.
IT'S NOT ALL GOOD - BRING YOUR GAS MASK
Of course, no place is perfectly idyllic (some remote mountain streams of Alaska come close), and Vilnius has some detractors. The worst in my opinion are below:
Smoke, smoke, and more smoke: The most successful company in Lithuania is Phillip Morris. Everybody smokes here. Few places have "non-smoking" sections. It is terrible. Within a week, your lungs will feel encrusted. You'll need to wash your clothes AND your luggage when you return.
Status of Women: Prostitution and general degradation of women is rampant in the city - not quite as bad as in nearby Riga, but at night you can count on more than one kid offering to sell you some time with his "sister" on the street.
Disparity between the Haves and the Have Nots: There's some severe poverty here - not much different than other large cities. The result is an increase in crime - the corruption of the previous government being replaced by corruption of some private citizens.
A charmer in Eastern Europe. I highly recommend that you visit here before the Lithuanians figure out the tourism thing and potentially ruin the experience! Inexpensive and beautiful, with FOOD being one of my favorite attractors. Bring your gas mask, though, as the smoke can be oppressive.